Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

KEATS’S FIRST WATERFALL

In Ambleside a few days ago to give a lecture, I decided to spend the afternoon walking up to Stockghyll Force, the lovely small waterfalls in the woods uphill behind Ambleside. The weather had been rainy so the Force was full and quite spectacular.

Stockghyll has always been a favourite of mine, and especially so because Keats wrote about it so wonderfully. He came here with his friend Brown, when they were on their walking tour to Scotland in 1818. In a  letter to his brother Tom, Keats wrote:

“The different falls have as different characters; the first darting down the slate-rock like an arrow; the second spreading out like a fan – the third dashed into a mist  –  and the one on the other side of the rock a sort of mixture of all these. We afterwards moved away a space, and saw nearly the whole more mild, streaming silverly through the trees. What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever…”

What I had not realised until I revisited the passage is that Keats described this as ‘The first waterfall I ever saw’! He had been to the country around London before, and to Sussex, previously, but not travelled widely; and had never previously visited mountainous country. So Stockghyll Force was his ‘first waterfall’.

And I love the way the passage shows Keats feeling that the landscape is alive, that it speaks to him and has a consciousness: ‘the intellect, the countenance of such places’.

And the sense that the place, and nature itself as manifested here, will enable him to ‘learn poetry’. Coming from Keats, that is deeply impressive.

If you visit the Stockghyll yourself, you can see how your impressions of the falls compare with Keats’s. Their different ‘characters’: arrow…fan…mist…or however you see them for yourself. Keats is teaching us how to look!

Walking back from the main falls along the bank, I noticed a point where a smaller beck came out to join the main one, from under a mysterious archway in the rocks:

So I climbed up into the ‘tunnel’, fascinated to see where it would lead, even at the cost of getting some water in one of my boots. And guess what? Turned out the beck was just passing under the path I’d previously climbed, and I’d walked over the top of it half an hour before without noticing. Never mind, I had the excitement of seemingly exploring that mysterious tunnel into apparently mysterious unknown territory!

When you’re out for a walk, everything can be an adventure.

MARGARET CROPPER: REDISCOVERING A LAKELAND POET

Margaret Cropper (1886-1980) is a poet about whom I’ve long been enthusiastic. I discovered her work when I was preparing my Literary Guide to the Lake District – her poems turned up in the Manchester Central Library and I’d never heard of her.

I read her narrative poem Little Mary Crosbie and was stunned: it’s a vivid, moving account of the fostering of an eight-year-old girl from a Children’s Home and it gives a magnificent, compassionate account of her experience, and of the Local Authority’s almost-successful attempt to claw her back into the Home.

It’s full of compassion, tinged with dialect, and beautifully written.

Margaret Cropper lived in Burneside, Cumbria (formerly Westmoreland), and wrote a number of medium-length narrative poems about local life, as well as quite a number of short lyrics. Her poems were written in the 1930s, and deserve to be looked at alongside the socially-conscious left-wing poetry of the day – though Cropper herself was a Christian, and albeit a pacifist was not a Socialist as far as I can tell.

Her work was admired by Norman Nicholson and John Betjeman but she never found a major London publisher. The copy I have was published by Titus Wilson of Kendal.

I’m giving a lecture on her work at 6.30pm on Tuesday 6 February at Cumbria University, the Ambleside Campus (the one that used to be Charlotte Mason College). It’s free. Do come if you can.

Tickets from: www.ticketsource.co.uk/cultural-landscapes

In the current re-valuation of women’s writing, we need a Woman Lakeland Poet – and here she is! Margaret Cropper should be rediscovered, and I hope to begin the process with my lecture.

See you there!

 

CHARLES WILLIAMS: The Novels Renewed!

I’m delighted today to receive three volumes of the new edition of the novels of Charles Williams being produced by the US publisher Apocryphile.  They’ve designed the covers beautifully, and these are really the first edition to do justice to these amazing books since they first appeared in the 1930s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was lucky enough to be invited to write new Introductions for these three – it was exciting to have the challenge of rereading and rethinking the books from a modern perspective and inviting new readers to enjoy them.

Charles Williams’s unique spiritual thrillers are unlike the work of any other writer. If you haven’t yet discovered them, you should give them a try, preferably in these elegant new editions.

I would recommend Many Dimensions as an ideal place to start, though opinions vary.

Williams’s unique blend of suspense and action with deep spiritual insight is unique. There’s no one else like him.  As T.S. Eliot wrote, ‘For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world. ..To him the supernatural was perfectly natural, and the natural was also supernatural. And this…provides both the immediate thrill, and the permanent message of his novels.’

Ian Marriott: Touched

Sometimes a book of poems comes along that I really want to draw attention to. Such a book is Ian Marriott’s pamphlet collection Touched, just published by the excellent Cinnamon Press.

Ian Marriott’s poems are remarkably economical: invariably he uses very small brief stanzas, each one provoking thought before you move on to the next. There is something haiku-like, or at any rate contemplative about his stanzas: you feel the need to pause an reflect on each one before you move on to the next. The title Touched seems to refer to this quality as much as anything. The poems touch us, or require us to touch them in reading.

Not that the touch is necessarily comforting. Marriott’s poems can be bleak, and have a way of using unsparing and even harsh images from nature to communicate human experience.

For much of Touched, this seems to be experience of trauma. The book opens with a nine-page sequence (but don’t be alarmed: that’s nine small pages of nine tiny stanzas…) –

The abandoned child
plays and replays
his loop of pain
until in the end
there’s little else…
Both oppressor
and oppressed –
in a single body
the bully, and abused.

Those lines tell – or show, rather – something I’d never seen before but which makes perfect emotional sense. I guess we can all identify with it, and many of us find something inside us that answers.

Images from nature are offered which are both exact in themselves and psychologically acute, as in the section called ‘Pond Skater’:

A Fön wind
from the wrong quarter
upends me –
or the slow dark
of a rising trout.
So perilous
this thin meniscus –
six legs splayed out.

Yes, I had to Google ‘Fön wind’ too: more often spelt foehn or Föhn, it’s a dry downhill wind off a mountain (it’s called the Chinook in the Rockies); maybe Marriott was a bit unwise to use this unfamiliar term, but at least we’ve learnt a new word and fact. But more important, it’s a lovely piece of natural observation; but we realise that the pond skater is also the emotional human self – so easily thrown, disturbed, or plunged into depression. we all know the feeling.

Later in the same sequence I found an unforgettable section, odd, grotesque and cheerful – at least, I think cheerful and find it so, ultimately – like something straight out of a Lowry painting:

Front leg missing,
one hundred percent dog –
he loped towards us
without an ounce
of self pity –
that whole, un-whole body,
muscled and twisting
against its loss.

An image to contemplate, unforgettable. And there are the quiet observations of nature and people, each small stanza a thing that yields more each time you ponder it:

INVERARY, SEPTEMBER

A grey heron
hunched on the tide,
shoreline always
a sense of becoming –
day-trippers slip
from city buses,
here to measure
their lives.

Ian Marriott is a writer to enjoy – and to contemplate. Order his fine pamphlet from Cinnamon Press here: https://cinnamonpress.com/image/  and his previous book The Hollow Bone here: https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/products/the-hollow-bone-by-ian-marriott

Ian will be reading at Manchester Poets – Chorlton Library, M21 9PN, 7.30 pm on Friday 22 April. Or if you’ve missed him, why not follow one of those links and buy one of his publications?

Consult the Oracle

My grandfather, I’ve been told, was something of a magician. At any rate, he left behind him a substantial collection of occult books. Unfortunately, I never saw this collection: when he died, my parents (not from any motive of disapproval, but simply because they were tired, and had had enough of dealing with his possessions) disposed of the whole lot to a bookseller.

            Or almost the whole lot. Because, as in all the best fairy tales, one book survived. And – of course – when I was about ten years old, I found it, hidden amongst all kinds of clutter in a kind of attic, the room next to my bedroom. It’s on the desk in front of me as I write, a battered old volume called Consult the Oracle, or, How to Read the Future. Could there possibly be a more alluring title for a child to discover? I still feel a certain thrill as I look at it now, despite its desperate physical condition. The spine, which time has darkened almost to black, has split and nearly fallen off. The hard front cover (there was clearly never a dust-jacket) is a shiny, grubby brown, darkened at the edges with finger-marks. It shows an amateurish drawing of a priestess swathed in voluminous robes, perched atop a three-legged chair – no doubt the famous ‘tripod’ of the Delphic Oracle. She raises one crudely-drawn hand, whilst the other clutches a branch of some shrub: perhaps meant for laurel or olive, though it looks nothing like either. And from a hole in the dais under her chair emanate curly wreathes of smoke: those vapours from the depths of the earth which were supposed to inspire the oracle’s prophecies. Alongside her, to remind us of practicalities, is the book’s price: one shilling (that’s five new pence, or around six cents). In March 1901 when Grandfather bought the book that would have been cheap, but not absolutely dirt cheap. I know when he bought it, incidentally, because there’s the date, under pencilled initials, on a flyleaf which has now completely detached itself and lies loose inside the cover.

            The title page enlarges on what’s to be found within. ‘A GUIDE TO THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS,’ it promises, ‘AND TO OTHER MATTERS MAGICAL AND MYSTERIOUS: BEING THE WISDOM OF PAST TIMES AND PRESENT TIMES AS TO WHAT WILL SURELY COME TO PASS’. Who could resist that? As a ten-year-old, I certainly couldn’t. When you’re a child, the future is everything, a box of delights. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have a different idea of ‘what will surely come to pass’ and it’s not all good. Never mind. The contents page listed possibilities beyond my wildest dreams. And indeed, dreams were where the book began. The first chapter was ‘We Tell the Meaning of your Dreams’, and it started with some basic tips: for example, a warning that ‘the gift of dreaming with truth is withdrawn from those who either tell as dreams what they never dreamt, or refuse to tell their dreams at all.’ That was worth remembering. Also, ‘Morning dreams are more reliable than those of any other time.’ And certainly, I’ve often found those the most vivid; though ‘the most important dream of the week’ is, apparently, the one you dream on Friday night. And above all, ‘dreams are interpreted by symbolism. The most earnest and best-informed student of the symbolical will be the most reliable interpreter of dreams.’

            There followed an alphabetical list of dream images, with interpretations – some of them surprising. If you dream of an anchor, for example, then ‘one of whose affections you are doubtful really cares for you’; and to dream of riding a bicycle ‘means that for some years you will have constant change’. A stopped clock means a dangerous illness; and ‘Should you dream of catching fish it is a sure sign of bad luck.’ More predictably, ‘To hear whispering in a dream means that many people are talking ill of you’. Some of the topics seemed a little outré; would I ever dream, for example, of a tortoise (‘you will by plodding on reach a high position in life’)? Or of watching a woman make pies (‘Your experience in love is likely to prove disastrous’)? Six decades later, I’m not sure that either of these has yet cropped up. But the details didn’t really matter. What counted was the sense that dreams were worth attention, that they had meaning. I began to recall my dreams purposefully, and to reflect on them. A few years later, in a local library, I found a book called The Interpretation of Dreams and borrowed it, expecting a more reliable guide to prophecy. It turned out to be by Sigmund Freud; it introduced me to psychoanalysis, which has played a valuable part in my life.

            But there was much more to Consult the Oracle than dreams. Among the other chapters were ‘Lucky and Unlucky Numbers’; ‘Fortunes told by Cards’; ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; ‘Fairy Folk’; ‘The Wonders of the Divining Rod’ and many more. Almost everything, it seemed, could have hidden meanings. The chapter on cartomancy offered what was probably a very old system for reading fortunes with ordinary playing-cards; in 1901, few people outside esoteric organisations had ever heard of Tarot cards. I didn’t get far with it: memorising the meanings of fifty-two cards, many of them apparently quite arbitrary, was too difficult (‘Five of Hearts: Unexpected news, generally of a good kind; Four of Hearts: An unfaithful friend. A secret betrayed…’). But it aroused my curiosity, and when I was sixteen I finally got a Tarot deck – which I’ve used ever since.

            More immediately valuable were the chapters called ‘We May Judge Character by the Hands and Fingers’ and ‘Fortune Read in the Palm of the Hand’. I studied my own hands closely. Easy enough to find the Life Line and even the lines of Head and Heart. But where was ‘the Plain or Triangle of Mars’? And what about the ‘Mount of Luna, or the Moon’? Not too worried about such minutiae, I scrutinised other people’s hands too. Somehow, without ever quite disentangling all the details, I began to develop a sense of how the hand, taken as a whole, with its fingers and wrist, as well as the maze of lines on the palm, spoke of a whole person. And a few years later, at teenage parties, what an asset palmistry turned out to be! What better passport could there be to sitting with a girl in a quiet corner, or halfway up the stairs, holding her hand and solemnly discussing her character, ambitions and dreams?

            The chapter on ‘Fairy Folk’ explained that

“The Land of Faerie is situated somewhere underground, and there the royal fairies hold their court. In their palaces all is beauty and splendour. Their pageants and processions are far more magnificent than any that Eastern sovereigns could get up or poets devise. They ride upon milk-white steeds. Their dresses, of brilliant green, are rich beyond conception; and when they mingle in the dance, or move in procession among the shady groves, or over the verdant lawns of the earth, they are entertained with delicious music, such as mortal lips or hands never could emit or produce.”

But apparently fairies would only be found where the grass grew ‘undisturbed by man’. ‘Once it is ploughed the spell is gone and they change their abode’. An old Scottish proverb was quoted: ‘Where the scythe cuts, and the sock [ploughshare] rives, hae done wi’ fairies and bee bykes!’ Bee bykes, it seemed, were nests of wild bees. And indeed, Consult the Oracle had a whole chapter on Bees: it was called ‘Bees Know More Than People Think’, a suggestion I still find very plausible. ‘Bees’, the Oracle explained, ‘are lovers of peace and will not thrive with a quarrelsome family.’ It also warned that ‘if there is a death in the family,’ the bees must be told, or they would leave: the correct formula was said to be ‘Little brownie, little brownie, [such a person] is dead.’ Once this was properly done, ‘the bees begin to hum by way of showing their consent to remain.’ It was also wise to ‘put a little sugar at the hive’s entrance on Christmas Eve’. ‘At the stroke of midnight’ the bees would come out to eat it. By contrast, some passages showed the casual cruelty of the Victorians: ‘Not to catch and kill the first butterfly seen in spring is unlucky’. That reads shockingly now; and is surely the exact opposite of the truth.

            The Oracle had a good deal to say about animals generally. Cats born in the month of May, it warned, ‘are good for catching neither mice nor rats.’ On the other hand, ‘The best mousers are cats that have been stolen.’ Did anyone truly ever steal a cat to improve its talents at pest-control? It seemed unlikely. More plausible were the notions that ‘Horses are able to see spirits’, and that it is lucky for a horse to have a white star on its forehead.

            It would take too long even to hint at all the wonders the Oracle had to offer. There was ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; as well as ‘The Mysteries of Spiritualism’, ‘Taking a Hand at Table-Turning’ and even an introduction to astrology: ‘There is much to be Learned from the Heavenly Bodies’. I could go on; but this is enough. Foolish and simple-minded much of the book certainly is, as I gradually realised. But it told me something important: that the world round me was not just a world of material objects, nor a world merely governed by meaningless chance and physical laws. It showed that there was meaning and mystery in everything; and that on the margins of mainstream thought – the kind of thinking we were taught at school – there were intuitions, dreams, visions of other and deeper things. Consult the Oracle showed me that, as the poet Paul Eluard neatly put it, ‘There is indeed another world – but it is in this one’. The Oracle helped me make the transition from the fluid, metamorphic, non-rational world of childhood, into the partially (very partially!) rational and informed grown-up world – that world in which so many people are encouraged to close down their intuitive, psychic and imaginative faculties – without losing the sense of wonder and mystery. Some people – the naturally spiritual ones – may not need such support but I did; and I was lucky to find it.

            Having inherited Consult the Oracle – accidentally, as it were – from my grandfather, it would be good to report that I am passing it on to one of my own grandchildren. But that’s impossible. For – again as in a fairy tale – now that its work is done, the book is crumbling to dust. In writing this essay I have turned many of the pages, and each as I turned it has broken away from the binding. So acidic is the paper that the leaves are brown and brittle at the margins. The edges of the pages flake off as they are touched. Soon the book will be nothing but a heap of fragments. Everything has its season, and this book’s season is passed. But it came to me at the right time, and I’m grateful. I consulted the oracle, and it spoke.

[This essay first appeared in QUEST, Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, and is given here by permission.]